Some people say life's the thing, but of late we've been seeking solace in air-conditioning and reading, taking comfort in the vast historical continuum of the social graces A from the obscenely rich matrons of the gilded age to the calculated pseudonihilism of the Warhol crowd A attempting to place Miami in an uplifting cultural perspective. But then, social history, taking the long view, is boundlessly sordid, nothing but an agitated jig before the well of human sadness, a juggernaut that absorbs and devours its staunchest opponents with the brazenness of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney patronizing the radical artists who caricatured her own circle. The rewards for sniping at society considerably slighter now, the task of criticism no easier, although the simple approach of Adolph Dehn aptly suits the modern pageant: "The term social criticism is too serious. Preposterous things are about me; I comment on them, that's all."

And so it's tentative forays on the highway of absurdity, the top dogs staying on the prowl, the bottom feeders nipping at their heels, everyone falling prey to the cruel joke in the horn of plenty: It's all shit anyway. The gulag of Washington Avenue, a steamy incarnation of Kafka's Prague, wayward youths using fake identification and black-market drink bracelets as passports to early dissipation. Charlie Sheen, solely interesting for his purported high jinks with faux cheerleaders in the Heidi Fleiss case, making an appearance at Planet Hollywood in conjunction with a screening of Terminal Velocity, the wayward actor starring with former Roman Polanski consort Nastassia Kinski.

It's a small, disgusting world, after all, the eternal lie of literature equally debased. A series of acclaimed novelists A all swearing to the clean habits of the bourgeoisie and the artistic fervor of revolutionaries A coming to town and demanding sex, substance abuse, and the American right to a vulgar weekend in Miami. Given this city's low-rent civic image, visiting luminaries might be better served if tax dollars went straight to the basics: complimentary convertibles, coke, and amenable beauties.

The program of quiet research escalating Saturday night with the "Acts of Hope" festivities at the Van Dyke hotel on Lincoln Road, an invigorating debut for a much-needed outpost of civilization. The Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS kicking things off with a fundraising performance at the Jackie Gleason Theater, the hotel itself serving as the mute guest of honor at the apräs party, real estate being the true celebrity of Miami Beach. The former office building for boom-and-bust pioneer Carl Fisher evolving into an apartment building filled with desperate tenants, limping along before the inevitable transmogrification of cash: two floors devoted to a downstairs cafe adorned with mock Vandyke paintings; several huge floor-through hotel rooms capped off by a truly spectacular penthouse, suitable for striking poses of Halstonesque alone-at-the-top chic. A hot, sweaty, and particularly feverish gathering, though nicely done: a string quartet plinking away on an Oriental carpet; lots of free food and drink, the superglue that binds the media; an ecumenical guest list ranging from drag queens to politicians, both camps forever prepared to stretch the boundaries of taste. Co-owner Mark Soyka, the eccentric neo-Beach pioneer who turned the News Cafe into an epic cash cow, basking in commercial glory and bringing to mind a profits-of-mysticism encounter some years ago at his restaurant. Soyka bobbing through an unceasing surge of patrons -- serve good tomatoes and the people will come -- completely centered and content: "I look at the ocean, I count my money, and I'm happy."

Not a bad approach to the high life, the chattering classes bouncing around an Alice in Wonderland landscape, a sea of only-in-Miami visuals: men openly groping their date's behinds with a materialistic leer, women flaunting sheer cocktail dresses worn without panties, billion-dollar beavers ripe for commercial exploitation. Lots of air-kisses and good will, the faces of the future mixing with the historical imperative. Jeanne Wolf, who grew up in Carl Fisher's old home, rising from the local gossip industry and achieving bicoastal celebrity-vibrator status in Hollywood, running the Governor Hotel part-time and holding on: "I'm still taking in gossip and feeding it out again. Nothing much has changed." The forever-hip Casey Hardin, homeboy and grandson of opera benefactor Roberta Balfe, also flying in from Los Angeles, Hardin having the good sense to seek his movieland fortunes elsewhere: "It's so weird to come from a city that's crumbling, falling apart, to a place that's stumbling into something new. But the woods are deep, dark, and dangerous here A Miami is so wild, and in clubs, they've managed to make prostitution seem legal, almost legitimate."

The thoroughly respectable evening marred somewhat by more tales of Julian Bain, the exiled promoter rumored to be returning to our fair town, ready to wallow in the whorish tolerance extended to hustlers, from S&L looter David Paul to the current crop of small-change crooks on South Beach. The slimy Bain, dispiritedly enough, fueled by our overly subtle commentary in a previous column, making phone calls to mutual friends and trumpeting deluded bold-face importance, one recorded message of cardboard glamour particularly telling. A long demented ramble, breathless and urgent, fabulousness-as-psychosis: little Julian happy at last, primed for fairyland stardom and socializing with "real people instead of all that Beach nightclub trash." All publicity might be good publicity, but really, things are getting ridiculous. The DIFFA party, like everywhere else on the joy-boy rounds, unfortunately rife with Bainamania. A none-too-pleased Paloma brushing past and sighing, "I suffered from him first, before all of this happened." A gentleman shuddering at a grossly unappetizing memory, Bain rhapsodizing about a sexual conquest in a hair salon: "He was beautiful, and he let me get on top." And then there's the cult figure at the center of the controversy, a fiftyish mom and Special K expert who alleges that assorted cash, drugs, and makeup dematerialized around Bain. The walking emblem of irony -- a drugged and cheated drug dealer. Granted the woman not exactly a force of moral authority, her understanding of modern life evidencing remarkable insight regardless: "Julian kept all his press clippings at my apartment, and without them he's nothing. He probably thinks I should use the fucking stuff for a ticker-tape parade, but I'm getting together with all the other people he's scammed. We're going to have him work off the money in hours of community service, reading to children with AIDS or something. It's all forgive and forget here. We have to stop letting people get away with everything. Enough is enough. Julian's like everyone else in this town -- he needs to be rehabilitated.

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Tom Austin